CreateAthon onCampus: A History

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Getting hands-on experience can sometimes be a challenge for undergraduates – a challenge Peyton Rowe, associate professor of advertising in the School of Mass Communications, hoped to overcome when she brought CreateAthon onCampus to Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008.

Rowe first experienced CreateAthon while working as an art director during the summer of 2004 at a marketing firm, Riggs Partners, in Columbia, SC. Brand new to the agency world, one of her first tasks involved a crazy 24-hour marathon of philanthropic marketing for local nonprofits.

“It was a game-changer for me professionally,” said Rowe. “I saw an art direction challenge for my own creativity but I really saw the potential as a teacher. I just knew it was a program I had to get to students. There were just too many good learning situations.”

CreateAthon was developed as the brainchild of Teresa Coles and Cathy Monetti in the summer of 1998. It began with one of those common conversations between coworkers: “You know what we should do?”

“We should work around the clock once in a while,” said Monetti. “Then maybe we could get ahead.”

“Yes, we should,” said Coles. “But we should do it for charity.”

The idea was simple – put a bunch of marketing, advertising and public relations professionals in a room, give them plenty of caffeine and protein bars (maybe order a pizza or two), and keep them there for 24 hours. At the end of the day, their work would be presented to the selected nonprofits and they’d be free to go home, shower and sleep.

That first year, Coles and Monetti were able to find 35 local charities willing and eager for Riggs Partners’ help in communicating their cause. They ended up selecting 11 of them based on their marketing needs and by what the 10 members of the inaugural CreateAthon team could provide in the 24–hour window. By the time Rowe joined them in 2004, Riggs Partners had already expanded the program, the previous year, into a national CreateAthon Network which extended their reach to thousands of men, women and children in need around the country.

“Peyton has been such a tremendous blessing to us,” said Coles, when asked about her experience working with Rowe. “The appreciation she has and the understanding she has for the impact this type of pro-bono work can have on a community is an incredible gift to us.”

Since that first successful summer, CreateAthon has impacted more than 1,100 non-profit organizations by delivering 2,500 projects valued at more than $11 million.

When Rowe further expanded that reach by bringing CreateAthon to VCU, she subsequently succeeded in being the first in the country to adapt the professional agency program for the college environment.

“When I came to VCU, I knew the School of Mass Communications was the right fit, because so many disciplines live within it. You’ve got PR, you’ve got journalism, you’ve got advertising,” said Rowe. “What is so important and terrific about CreateAThon is getting different disciplines to work together. As I like to say, ‘If you get a whole bunch of creatives trying to solve something, we’re all going to make it fluffy, but it won’t solve the problem.’”

For Coles, Rowe’s higher education adaptation was a natural progression of where Monetti and she saw CreateAthon growing.

“We readily embraced developing a university model for the program,” said Coles. “What’s beautiful about the way in which she’s set up CreateAthon onCampus, there’s time over the semester for students to learn about nonprofits and how they operate on a day-to-day basis. They have the semester to emerge themselves in that.”

As for the strength CreateAthon onCampus adds to a student’s resume, Robert Black, 2013 student team member volunteer for The Giving Heart, can appreciate how his hard work will be beneficial to him in the future.

“It’s definitely something you can talk about in a job interview,” said Black.

He went on to explain that implementation of the ideas developed during CreateAthon onCampus leads to real-world portfolio work the students can later share with prospective employers.

Coles agrees that the professional benefits cannot be emphasized enough.

“We would love nothing more than to see more and more young people have this on their resume,” said Coles. “It says to a potential employer, this is someone who’s not only interested in honing their craft, but also understands the value of developing a level of creativity to the point where it can be put towards solving community problems.”

Andrea Goulet Ford, a freelance creative professional who has been involved as a mentor with CreateAthon onCampus for four years, joined the mentor team because a mutual friend shared what Rowe was doing at VCU. Since her first year in 2009, Ford has been excited to come back every spring.

“It’s my favorite day of the year,” said Ford. “As a creative professional, it’s where I come to get my batteries recharged.”

Specifically, she enjoys being a part of the community outreach which the students are involved in.

Students present their ideas to their nonprofit client.
Students present their ideas to their nonprofit client.

“My favorite part is the presentations, because there are tears and joy and the nonprofits are always just so happy, because it’s just such a gift,” said Ford. “Having been involved with a number of nonprofits, I know what a difference good marketing materials make.”

In just one day, 24 hours, 1,440 minutes – VCU students are able to challenge themselves, develop valuable leadership skills and truly make a difference in the community surrounding their university. All of which is made possible because one passionate educator saw the value of bringing such a hands-on experience to the diverse culture of VCU’s School of Mass Communications as well as the greater Richmond area.

“You can’t throw water on that fire,” said Cole, eager to praise Rowe’s passion for CreateAthon.